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by Sharon Rondeau


(Jun. 27, 2020) — On Thursday Japan’s defense minister, Taro Kono, said at a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan symposium that his country notes “movement” within communist North Korea which he tenuously described as “strange.”

The English-speaking session included substantial questions from reporters after Kono thanked the organization for its invitation and spoke for approximately ten minutes about current events.

In his opening remarks, Kono said, tongue-in-cheek, “You can hire me as your interpreter anytime; I would translate myself” to chuckles from the audience.

Kono’s previous government experience is as a member of the Japanese parliament and, more recently, as Japan’s foreign minister.  Of his transfer from foreign relations to defense, he said, “My budget increased significantly, but I realized it’s much tighter in defense ministry than foreign affairs ministry.”  As compared to other nearby countries increasing their defense budgets, Kono said, “For last just about 20 years, Japan’s defense spending is just about flat.” [sic]

He noted Chinese military expansion which he said is evidenced by Japanese aircraft “scrambling” in response to Chinese aircraft on a daily basis and Chinese “ships with guns trying to violate our territorial water constantly” (8:00).

“What’s going on in South China Sea is also alarming,” he continued.  “There are some Vietnamese fishing boat sunk by Chinese; there’s a lot of going-on in South China Sea, and what’s happening in Hong Kong — well, the two systems in one country is sort-of eroding.  What’s going on between the China-India border we need to pay much closer attention to it.” [sic]

Kono enumerated ways in which Japan has assisted during the COVID-19 pandemic by means of a “self-defense force.”  He noted that no one on the force has become infected with the virus.  “That tell you how they strictly follow the regulation and orders,” he said. [sic]

Japan will soon face its typical typhoon season, Kono said, necessitating planning for protecting the nation’s citizens, this year amid the COVID-19 crisis.  He said the self-defense force is engaged in a “fight against climate crisis” as well as natural disasters.

Just before the 14:00 mark, Kono said he wanted to observe his ten-minute speaking limit so as to allow reporters time to ask questions, which in nearly all cases were posed in English and translated into Japanese.

When asked to provide commentary on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s seven years in office, Kono responded, “I think he’s done quite good; economics turned around, deflation to sort-of a normal projectory of the economy; we have done a state secret law; we changed so-called peace security laws…he’s been doing quite well managing the relationship with President Trump and he has made some significant amendment to laws in many fields.”

Trump and Abe have praised their apparently close relationship and agreement on matters involving North Korea.

Kono said Japan hopes to host the postponed “Olympic Games” next year.  “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

At the 28:00 mark, the host read two questions received by email, the first of which asked, in light of the cancellation of a certain defense program, if there will be a similar cancellation of a $3.3 billion contract for “interceptors announced by the State Department last year.” Kono responded, “We have been talking with United States how to improve our ballistic missile defense capability or integrate it – air-missile defense capability. so we are trying to make maximum use of what we have contracted with United States. How we going to do that, we still need to look into it, so it doesn’t really mean outright cancellation.”

The second question asked if a reported claim in John Bolton’s recently-released “memoir,” “The Room Where it Happened,” of a “demand” for “$8 billion annually for host-nation support” were “true.”

To that, Kono, who has a sense of humor, said he wanted to buy Bolton’s book but that it was “sold out.”  He download the Kindle version, he said, but “I’m not good at using Kindle; I haven’t finished the book yet. We haven’t really started out a negotiation on host-nation support.  We haven’t really heard anything from United States about those issues” (30:00).

Directly after that, a reporter asked Kono to “describe how you see the North Korean threat” and for his assessment of the “current events coming out of North Korea.”

“We are trying to find out what’s going on in North Korea.  Recent movement is quite — what’s the right word? quite ‘strange’ – I don’t know ‘strange’ is a good word,” Kono replied.  “We suspect, number 1, that COVID-19 is spreading around North Korea as well and Kim Jong-Un is trying not to infected by COVID-19 so sometimes he doesn’t come in public.  Number 2, we have some suspicion about his health.  Thirdly, the harvest last year in North Korea wasn’t quite good, or bad, actually, or the economy in North Korea is not doing well, so Kim Jong-Un or his regime needs some scapegoat so that people will look outside of North Korea.  So it could be possible that’s why they are so harsh on ROK (Republic of Korea) government right now.  So we are trying to gather information and analyze it and see what’s really going on in North Korea.  We have been talking to United States and other countries; we are exchanging information about that.”

In April when rumors swirled that Kim Jong-Un was dead or in a serious medical situation, South Korea had said it did not detect any unusual “movement” within its northern communist neighbor.  Kim was reportedly seen publicly on May 1, several days after President Trump indicated awareness of but a reluctance to speak about Kim’s condition.

In June 2018, President Trump met with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore, where an agreement was signed for North Korea to denuclearize over time in a series of verifiable steps.  However, there has been little, if any, ostensible progress to date, and North Korea again began testing missiles in March. Prior to the summit, North Korea had fired two missiles over Japan and threatened to attack the U.S. and its allies.

Jong-Un has, however, apparently adhered to his pledge to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War, whose 70th conclusion anniversary was marked on Thursday by the U.S. State Department and other governments around the world.

In January 2016, North Korea arrested American college student Otto Warmbier and later convicted him of stealing a propaganda poster while he was on a supervised tour of the hermit nation.  In June the following year, the Trump administration negotiated his release and return to the United States.  Warmbier was flown to his native Ohio in a “vegetative state” and passed away on June 19, 2017.

North Korea has long been criticized for human-rights violations and the operation of prison camps employing torture against its citizens.

On May 26, 2020, the website Daily NK reported circulation of information within North Korea “educating people about COVID-19.”

On June 8, North Korea reportedly severed communications with South Korea despite a warming of the relationship between the two leaders following the Singapore summit.  “In its announcement, North Korea said Tuesday’s move was a response to South Korea’s failure to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across their border,” the Associated Press reported.  “…For years, conservative South Korean activists, including North Korean defectors living in the South, have floated huge balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets criticizing leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and human rights record. The leafleting has sometimes triggered a furious response from North Korea, which bristles at any attempt to undermine its leadership.”

On June 16, Jong-Un ordered the destruction of an “inter-Korean liaison office” within its borders but subsequently postponed declared planned military action against its southern neighbor.  “International sanctions” against the repressive regime appear to be a factor in the North’s recent aggression toward the South.

On Thursday, the Daily NK reported that “North Korean military units near the inter-Korean border are still on a high state of combat readiness despite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to ‘postpone’ military action against South Korea on June 23.”


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